The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Bikila: Ethiopia's Barefoot Olympian

Tim Judah

Reviewer - John Mellors


Abebe Bikila was the first Ethiopian runner to become a household name. He famously won the Rome Olympic marathon in 1960 running barefoot in his first competitive race outside Ethiopia. He went on to win a second Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 1964, only 40 days after undergoing an appendectomy, becoming the first man to win two consecutive Olympic marathons. He raced in the Mexico Olympics in 1968 but could not finish because of a leg injury, the gold medal being won by another Ethiopian, Mamo Wolde. Abebe's running career finished when he broke his neck in a car accident in 1969 and was left paralysed from the waist down. He subsequently competed in archery and table tennis competitions at games for wheelchair users and won the sleigh riding competition in Norway in 1971. In 1973 Abebe died in hospital following a brain haemorrhage.

A new book on his life, Bikila – Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian, has been published this year. It is as much about the story of Onni Niskanen, the Swede who was responsible for coaching Abebe and other athletes in the Imperial Bodyguard, as it is of Abebe and gives a fascinating insight into life in post-war Ethiopia. The rise and fall of Abebe is compared to the rise and fall of the dreams of “new Africa in its years of decolonisation and hope”.

The book is written by Tim Judah, a freelance foreign correspondent and well known expert on the Balkans. Tim Judah is not new to writing about Ethiopia though; his first job was at the BBC African Service and he has been reporting from Africa for over 20 years. The main research for the book was carried out in 1997 and 1998 when he was documenting the life of Abebe for a possible film. He interviewed many people in Ethiopia, Switzerland, Italy, Sweden, Britain and France about Abebe and Niskanen and uncovered much previously undocumented history. He also managed to find Niskanen’s personal photograph album with many previously unseen photographs of Abebe and obtained permission to publish some of them in the book.

The book was published in time for the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in August. Unfortunately it looks as though a few corners were cut in order to achieve this and the book could have benefited from a little more work. There are some obvious proof reading mistakes evident and I found that the hyphenation of some of the words at the end of lines was very off-putting (eg Iris-hman). These are minor quibbles though; the book clears up many myths about Abebe, including his involvement in the 1960 coup attempt by the Imperial Guards, his injury in the Mexico Olympics and his 1969 car accident. It is not just a book for sports fans though; it should be of interest to anyone wishing to know a little more about society life in post-war Ethiopia. A short but interesting book – would make a good Boxing Day read.

Bikila - Ethiopia's Barefoot Olympian by Tim Judah, published by Reportage Press, London, July 2008.
176 pages, 16 plates and maps.
Hardback ISBN: 9780955830242 - Price £16.99
Softback ISBN: 9780955830211 - Price £12.99

Part of the proceeds from the sales of this book will go to Radda Barnen – Save the Children Sweden in Ethiopia. Between 1972 and 1981, it was headed by Onni Niskanen, Bikila’s trainer, who then continued to advise it until his death. The charity are the custodians of Niskanen’s private photo album, the source of many of the previously unseen pictures in the book.

First Published in News File Winter 2008

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